Today’s announcement that John Boehner will host Gibson Guitars CEO Henry Juskiewicz in the speaker’s box during President Obama’s jobs speech as a victim of over-regulation run amok is an example of cynical fact-twisting at its worst.
Gibson Guitars, maker of the iconic Les Paul electric guitar, is under investigation for violating a law that protects forests and workers in the US and around the world. Attacking the law — which actually helps secure long-term supply of raw materials and level the playing field for US companies and workers — and its enforcement is crass self interest leavened with gross political manipulation.
The facts: On August 24, 2011, agents of the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) executed a search warrant on Gibson Guitar’s facilities in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, seizing ebony and rosewood material, guitars, and guitar parts as evidence of suspected violations of the U.S. Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is a long-standing anti-trafficking statute that prohibits trade in illegally-sourced wildlife, plants and wood products from either the U.S. or other countries. Its 2008 amendments were passed under President George W. Bush with bipartisan support and a groundbreaking coalition of industry, labor, and environmental groups.
This is the second time that Gibson’s been the subject of action under this law — and the two cases are not even related. Gibson was raided in 2009 in connection with its import of ebony from Madagascar. Madagascar’s national parks, full of wildlife and trees found nowhere else on earth, have been invaded over the past few years by illegal loggers seeking rosewood and ebony. A network of corrupt timber barons controls this trade in Madagascar; the wood is sold onwards to Europe, China, and the United States. A researcher at the Missouri Botanical Gardens described Madagascar precious woods to the Wall Street Journal as “the equivalent of Africa’s blood diamonds.”
The spin: Even while apparently acknowledging that its actions were a violation of the Lacey Act, through statements like “This would have been legal if….” , Gibson has resorted to the argument that enforcement of the law is going to cost jobs and that “The Obama Justice Department wants us to just shut our doors and go away.” Gibson’s CEO has gone on the warpath on Fox News and radio programs.
The reality: Enforcing the Lacey Act is not undercutting US workers and hurting jobs — rather, it is ensuring their long-term survival. The law has been strongly supported by the US forest products industry precisely because global trade in illegal wood products dramatically undercuts US producers and the domestic wood products industry. The industry itself estimated that illegal trade did economic damage in the US to the tune of $1 billion annually in lowered prices and lost markets.
The media, amplifying Mr. Juskiewicz’s arguments, is stoking irrational fears by suggesting that the authorities “may be coming for you next.” But the Feds are not coming to seize Eric Clapton’s guitar, or your guitar. The government has always stated its intent to investigate and shut down networks of illegal smuggling and trade, not individuals. As Edward Grace, the deputy chief of the FWS’s office of law enforcement, is quoted in this week’s Economist: “As a matter of longstanding practice… investigators focus not on unknowing end consumers but on knowing actors transacting in larger volumes of product.”
Striking a sour note: Music making and environmental protection not only can be harmonized, they must be harmonized if either effort is to succeed. Smart instrument makers know this and are already investing in efforts to support low-impact community forestry, replant endangered species, and use wood more efficiently rather than oppose and ridicule enforcement of laws like the Lacey Act that will be the only thing to keep their raw materials around in the long run.
This is a moment for musicians, builders and companies to ask, “Where is my wood coming from, and is it legal?” Creating transparency in global supply chains will help ensure the longevity of precious tonewoods for generations to come. What would the world of music be like with no wood at all?